By the time I reached the car, rain drops had already began their assault. I quickly started the car, opened my phone to detect GPS’ best route home, and set out down the block. My weather app struggled to pull up the radar, as if it sensed all the dark greens, oranges, and reds would be just too much to handle.
One stoplight allowed me enough time to send the text, “on my way home,” before I was headed onto the freeway to drive the 15 miles home. We had chosen the church for its worship service… not its proximity to our rental home.
The waves of rain and the overwhelming darkness disoriented me. Only 7 months here in Durham, my experience on the freeway was not familiar enough for a storm like this. From deep within, I pulled every ounce of focus, driving experience, and determined strength that I could. I channeled it into my piercing eyes and tense hands so as to detect and maneuver with great clarity the pools of water, other vehicles on the road, and the road markers to keep me in my lane and on the road as I twisted and turned through construction.
With ashes spread on my forehead in the shape of the cross, could this be the end?
I couldn’t help but feel the irony in my bones. I had raced in evening traffic to the Ash Wednesday service to hear those words (“Dust you are, to the dust you will return”), to sing the faith (“This cross of ashes on my brow reminds me life is brief”), and to sit in the ugly truth of it all with other failing human bodies. And now, I faced mortality with my own piercing eyes and tense hands, nature’s own waves of rain and overwhelming darkness.
I navigated the car in the tension between my controlled movement and nature’s uncontrollable power. I received the invitation to return to the humble posture in which I was born – a child at the mercy of the world that would bear me for the days granted.
I reached our home, emerged from the car, and ran up the front stairs. Husband opened the door, cradling our three-month-old in a quiet house. Upstairs, boys awaited my goodnight hymn, kiss, and “I love you.”
There are no levels of mastery, engineering innovation, nor theological truth to protect us from the mortality that hangs over us all. There is only the cross smudged on our foreheads that proclaims Christ crucified – a stumbling block to human attempts at immortality and the incomprehensible fullness of God’s foolish love. It is the mystery of which we are stewards (not explainers).
Getting ready for bed, I washed my face and watched the dark ashes flow down the drain.
The memory of the night endures. In deep time, the moment goes on. But I cannot endure it with the same intense attention to the Ash Wednesday reality. My tender heart and relational responsibilities cannot live with our mortality exposed so transparently and tangibly. But I do my best in Lent, wearing my wooden cross as I make grocery lists, work towards assignment deadlines, and read bedtime books.
Thanks be to God for the smudged cross whose power persists in every moment in which my own human heart cannot abide and still function. The hours pass and life goes on, and I live in the foolish love of our Keeper.
“This cross of ashes on my brow reminds me life is brief.
From dust I came, to dust I go through sorrow, pain, and grief.
These forty days are set aside for those who share the call
to take the cross, deny themselves, and give to Christ their all.”
– R. G. Huff